Heading For Trouble: Personal Account No. 4

Cheerleading is a more dangerous sport than many give it credit for. Courtesy Lauren Grapstein

[Ed.'s Note: In the latest issue of The Mag, senior writer Peter Keating examines the dangers of concussions for female athletes, who are 68% more likely to be concussed than their male counterparts. Here, Lauren Grapstein, gives the fourth in a series of five personal accounts from women who have suffered concussions on the field of play.]

Competitive cheerleading is no longer about waving pom-poms. It's one of the most physically demanding and dangerous sports out there, and the level of danger increases every year. We put on a smile for two-and-a-half-minute routines, but people don't realize we also put ourselves at great risk every time we take the floor.

Cheerleaders do not wear helmets or protective equipment and it takes just one mistake for someone to come crashing down, causing serious injury. But until it happened to me, I would never have expected to sustain a concussion during cheerleading.

It's easy to assume that flyers, the top girls in the pyramid, are the cheerleaders most at risk for injury. But every person in the stunt group can get hurt. I'm small enough to be a flyer, but I'm a base, which means I usually lift girls heavier than I am. And during one practice a year and a half ago, my flyer was up in a stunt and started losing her balance. Instead of falling backward to let the back spot catch her, she came down on my face. I was supporting her, so I was looking up, and I can remember watching her come crashing down. The next thing I remember, I was surrounded by my coach, the trainer and my fellow cheerleaders. I briefly lost consciousness and my nose was bleeding. The pain was beyond belief.

Once my Mom came, we went to the hospital. In the emergency room, they told us I had a broken nose. She had to ask whether anyone had checked to see if I had a concussion. They hadn't, but I did.

Once you experience a concussion, you start to see how it can affect your everyday life. The next day, I went back to school. It was one of the first few days of school, and I remember thinking I had a literature test on The Crucible that I was really nervous about. But for many weeks, I couldn't focus or concentrate on school work. I had severe headaches, nausea and dizziness. I had to take Advil. I couldn't carry anything heavy and I was exceptionally tired.

The healing process was very frustrating. I felt exiled from my team. My coach kept saying, "When you get back," to me, and I didn't know how to say I might not be coming back. Even after my symptoms dissipated, it took several more weeks for the doctor to tell me that my concussion had healed. But if I had returned to cheerleading prematurely, I would have put myself at enormous risk. With patience and good medical attention, I made a complete recovery.

It's important to question coaches about any routine you think may be too dangerous. And when a stunt is being tried for the first time, there should be spotters around. Coaches and trainers also need to be taught to recognize concussions and realize that concussions need time to heal.